Fitness can be an attempt to go beyond the ordinary human experience. It begins with exploring the limits of the body, and it then explores the limits of the mind. Ultimately, it explores the limits of the whole person. One discovers from hand-to-hand combat with the self—or through a transport to indescribable areas of the soul—that there are indeed other and greater realities.
George Sheehan, Personal Best
To most humans that participate in an exercise program, it is simply about how to get the most “results” in as little time as possible for the least amount of money. Looking at it from a purely functional standpoint this is all any of us should really seek to invest. These should be the parameters for decision making when it comes to which path to take to fill the physical fitness, health requirement of life. The practical approach if you may.
On the other hand, as you know or may have heard, there is a large and growing population that is increasingly drawn to more committed pursuits of fitness. This ranges from multi-pitch rock climbs, peak bagging, summit pushes, triathlons, marathons, trail runs, thru-hikes, ultra-marathons, and multi-day swim/bike/kayak/run events. This transformation is not immediate, often taking many years of varying experiences and participation before finding true passion and play in our physical selves, becoming how we see, experiment and ultimately enjoy our lives.
For some this starts with athletics at a young age and continues. For others, a void is filled later in life out of either necessity or desire. A person may try many forms of exercise before one takes a firm grip on our being. It is at this moment that we’ve found our play. The rest of our lives will be enhanced because of this discovery. Physical activity is the one positive we can add to our lives that requires just doing, and not subtracting or stopping some negative health behavior. Discovering that you can run or jog is a powerful feeling. I remember packing my running shoes on a trip to San Francisco several years ago and setting off on a early morning run, hoping to run across the Golden Gate in the early morning hours. That day I experienced something transcendental. Finishing that run I knew that running was my play. Running would be the physical activity that I could not live without. First and foremost I am a runner. All other labels are descriptions come secondary to this elemental fact. I have found my play.
Fitness can be as simple as doing as jogging for 30 minutes, 4 days per week. Put in the basic minimum and you will enhance your life. But allowing yourself to find joy in movement will change your life. Passion, adventure, fear, excitement, travel, exploration, experience, and competition all blossom when we begin to explore our perceived limits. Opening up your soul to the experience of self-propulsion and you may never look back. The athletic soul seizes the moment in each day. A powerful display of the human spirit.
The best example I can give you is of myself. I’ve always been obsessed with fitness. At a young age I found that by working my body I could change my appearance. The more time I spent exercising the more my body changed. This newfound control of my outward appearance was powerful. It felt good to be different than my peers. I liked the commitment, the isolation, and the rewards of daily practice. Fitness had become my “play”, whereas for others fitness was either completely lacking from their life, or it was a necessary requirement, another thing to be checked off the list, done but not experienced. During this period I was often told I was missing out, spending too much time in the gym, too much time garnering knowledge and information, and neglecting the social, group dominated behavior of our teenage years. What I came to realize is mediocrity likes to keep everyone on the same level. The outliers usually remain that way as people can only judge and comprehend what they have direct understanding of. I liked this distinguishing fact that fitness gave me.
For many years I mainly did what I liked to do in the gym. For me, this was weight training. Time was not a worry, thus I was not rushed to get out of the gym and onto the next thing. You could even call it traditional “bodybuilding” training. Isolating joints, muscle groups, movements became the theme. This lasted until I experienced the first major transition in my adult life, college student to college graduate. This change brought with it a geographic shift as well. Moving from the Midwest to the Southwest. As I met new people and experienced a new way of living my enthusiasm for life and fitness massively shifted. During this time I learned the term “functional” and how that applied to fitness training. Through a friend, I was exposed to gymnastic, suspension training, and body leverage techniques. This new form of building strength was enlightening. Instead of moving a weight I was now moving my body. Suspension training is all about establishing a solid mind-body connection, learning and mastering movements while displaying control (or lack of). This black and white, can or can’t was eye-opening. I loved it. Improvements and accomplishments came slowly. Practicing difficult movements that don’t give you the instant gratification of success that others dish out in large doses takes a serious amount of dedication. I found that willingness was a rare commodity in the gym scene so I often trained alone, after business hours, or with a friend in the isolation of our garage.
Evolving. Over time I found you can only take gym-environment fitness training so far, and I took it about as far as I could. After a few years I began to supplement the strength training with trail running. Instead of running 3 x week and strength training 4 x week I was doing the opposite. Trail running allowed me to experience my surroundings at a visceral level. I was beginning to learn how to relax while training. As with anything new the challenge came with a steep learning curve. Developing aerobic fitness and efficiency takes time. To run for more than 45 minutes is a learned talent. Endurance athletics is passion driven and definitely not something you can force. In order to come back week after week, seeking micro improvements, the activity must be enjoyable. Along with the positive physical feedback trail running gave me, I enjoyed being away from the city’s smells, sounds, distractions, and conveniences. Trail running was becoming my elixir. My way to escape, explore, and be exposed to the elements of my environment. It soon transformed into a way to test the fusion of my training techniques (strength, flexibility, endurance, mental) in competition. The added element of competition, which for me was the missing link in other forms of fitness training, gave structure and significance to every training session I engaged in. Competition or racing provided purpose to the process training. The race became a test and an opportunity to see what I could do… what kind of effort I could give over the course and terrain. It also gave feedback as to what areas I needed to work on, improve in, or prioritize to have more success, or compete better next time.
Remembering that fitness must be enjoyable is key, even suffering and pain, when welcomed with knowledge that it never lasts, can add excitement to your weekly training. This is why I race. Racing is a unique option to endurance athletes as it is so readily accessible. In most places you can find a race, or multiple races to choose from every weekend. The choice is always yours as to how easy, mellow, mild, or hard you want to compete. Once the mind is set on a course of action the body is either restrained in pace, or set free and unleashed to discover new physical limits.
The challenge never has to cease or become dull. Today there is so much variety, so many choices and race types, and hundreds if not thousands of ways to keep it fresh and keep the mind and body interested in the activity or sport.
My challenge to you is to jump into your training. Make a commitment to pick up an activity you enjoyed in the past… learn a new training technique, learn how to swim, how to ride a road or mountain bike, or run with a relaxed mind and attitude. Let the activity and your enjoyment in the process of learning, and being a beginner, keep you coming back for more. Set short-term goals, read about this new “thing” in your life. Find a mentor. Read the sport journals and find inspiration in those that have mastered and taken their skill in the activity to the limits of perceived possibility.
When I run all things feel possible. All of my goals in sport, business, and life feel achievable and within reach while I run. The glory of a completed run leaves me feeling relaxed and complete. My breakfast tastes better, I eat slower, and the cold water I drink cleanses, refreshes, and satisfies my deep thirst.
The uncertainty of the next challenge or race keeps me on edge, not in a bad way, but in a way that connects me with the naivety of the inexperience and anticipation of my youth.
Find your trail. Seek out an active lifestyle. Be forever in anticipation of the challenges that lay ahead.